Politics of the Seven Kingdoms: The Reach (Part IV)

thereach

credit to ser-other-in-law

In the previous section, I looked at how House Gardener responded to the Andal Invasion of the Reach through a masterful use of assimilation that resulted in a cultural and political regeneration that made the Reach one of the leading contenders in the Great Game of Westeros…

The Fall of House Gardener

When Aegon Targaryen raised his banners on top of the hillfort that would later become the Red Keep, no one realized that the Great Game had ended. Indeed, King Mern IX’s initial reaction to this new contestant was wholly within the traditions of the Game:

“In the west, King Mern of the Reach rode the Ocean Road north to Casterly Rock to meet with King Loren of House Lannister…With both the riverlands and stormlands now under the control of Aegon the Dragon and his allies, the remaining kings of Westeros saw plainly that their own turns were coming. .. the two great western kings had made common cause and assembled their own armies, intent on putting an end to Aegon for good and all.

From Highgarden marched Mern IX of House Gardener, King of the Reach, with a mighty host. Beneath the walls of Castle Goldengrove, seat of House Rowan, he met Loren I Lannister, King of the Rock, leading his own host down from the westerlands. Together the two kings commanded the mightiest host ever seen in Westeros: an army fifty-five thousand strong, including some six hundred lords great and small and more than five thousand mounted knights. “Our iron fist,” boasted King Mern. His four sons rode beside him, and both of his young grandsons attended him as squires.” (WOIAF)

As we’ve seen before, one of the foundational rules of the Great Game is that you gang up on whoever seems to be about to win. And here Aegon Targaryen had snapped up the future-Crownlands, the Riverlands, and the Stormlands in less than a year, recreating the empire of Arlan III. And so the mighty Kings of the West allied against him – but there’s something strange about their alliance. While GRRM is notoriously bad with numbers, the full strength of the Rock and the Reach together should have added up to 145,000 men, with around 48,000 knights – suggesting that only 40% of their total strength, and a mere 10% of their precious knights were committed to the fight.[1] One possible explanation here is that, the Lannisters and Gardeners didn’t in fact mobilize the whole of their strength for the fight against the Targaryens, as they needed to keep back men to guard their respective borders from any attempt of one party to stab the other in the back.[2] (This still doesn’t explain the “the mightiest host ever seen in Westeros” line, however.)

Chroniclers with poor math skills aside, House Gardener seems to have committed itself politically to being the senior partner in the alliance: Mern IX brought 33,000 men to Loren I’s 22,000 in order so that he could get away with “demand[ing] the honor of commanding the center. His son and heir, Edmund, was given the vanguard.” Loren I was demoted to commanding the right wing on par with Lord Oakheart’s command of the left. Likewise, Mern IX’s decision to bring his entire family, from his “four sons” to “both of his young grandsons” to his “brothers, cousins, and other kin,” and the entirety of the Order of the Green Hand, speaks to a total commitment by House Gardener to the fight against the Targaryen invaders. Needless to say, this political statement was to have historical consequences for the whole of the Reach.

And so the stage was set for the Field of Fire. And although this battle is one of, if not the most important battles when it comes to the foundation of the Targaryen monarchy, it’s surprisingly how many questions remain about what actually happened. Some things aren’t in dispute:

“[Aegon] commanded only a fifth as many men as the two kings, and much of his strength was made up of men sworn to the riverlords, whose loyalty to House Targaryen was of recent vintage and untested.

The two armies came together amongst the wide, open plains south of the Blackwater, near to where the Goldroad would run one day. The two kings rejoiced when their scouts returned to them to report Targaryen numbers and dispositions. They had five men for every one of Aegon’s, it seemed, and the disparity in lords and knights was even greater. And the land was wide and open, all grass and wheat as far as the eye could see, ideal for heavy horse. Aegon Targaryen did not command the high ground, as Orys Baratheon had at the Last Storm; the ground was firm, not muddy. Nor were they troubled by rain. The day was cloudless, though windy. There had been no rain for more than a fortnight.

With no natural barriers to anchor the Targaryen line, the two kings meant to sweep around Aegon on both flanks, then take him in the rear, whilst their “iron fist,” a great wedge of armored knights and high lords, smashed through Aegon’s center.

Aegon Targaryen drew his own men up in a rough crescent bristling with spears and pikes, with archers and crossbowmen just behind and light cavalry on either flank. He gave command of his host to Jon Mooton, Lord of Maidenpool, one of the first foes to come over to his cause. The king himself intended to do his fighting from the sky, beside his queens. Aegon had noted the absence of rain as well; the grass and wheat that surrounded the armies was tall and ripe for harvest … and very dry.” (WOIAF)

From a Doylist standpoint, you can see GRRM designing a battle which would simultaneously encourage an all-cavalry army to commit to an aggressive strategy while allowing Aegon’s dragons to be the dominant, conclusive force on the battlefield: Aegon is outnumbered (although it’s slightly odd that he could only pull together 10,000 men given that the Crownlands, Riverlands, and Stormlands can field at least 60,000 men between them), the terrain is ideal for cavalry, and the dry grass and wheat are ready like so much wildfire to bring the battle its central focus.

field of fire

At the same time, there is a troubling lack of clarity about what actually happened when the Kings of the West actually executed their strategy – for one thing, the text is unclear as to whether the plan to “sweep around Aegon on both flanks” actually happened, as the only action described is the charge at the center. But even more unclear as to what happened when that charge at the center took place. In some versions, the charge hits home and the Targaryen infantry is scattered:

“The Targaryens waited until the two kings sounded their trumpets and started forward beneath a sea of banners. King Mern himself led the charge against the center on his golden stallion, his son Gawen beside him with his banner, a great green hand upon a field of white. Roaring and screaming, urged on by horns and drums, the Gardeners and Lannisters charged through a storm of arrows down onto their foes, sweeping aside the Targaryen spearmen, shattering their ranks.” (WOIAF)

“When the Two Kings charged, the Targaryen army shivered and shattered and began to run. For a few moments, the chroniclers wrote, the conquest was at an end.” (AGOT)

And yet in other versions – or even different parts of the same narrative – of the narrative, the Targaryen army actually holds its ground, as “Lord Mooton’s men, safely upwind of the conflagration, waited with their bows and spears and made short work of the burned and burning men who came staggering from the inferno.” (WOIAF) There are two ways I see to reconcile these two pieces of information: one possibility is that the Targaryen infantry really did break, and that the reports that the “the Targaryens lost fewer than a hundred men” are mere propaganda meant to paper over Lord Mooton’s failure. (It’s highly unlikely that an infantry force that breaks under a cavalry charge would suffer a less than 1% casualty rate.)

After all, House Targaryen’s military forces had suffered more than a few embarrassments during the Conquest – Orys Baratheon getting ambushed when he crossed the Wendwater, Daemon Velaryon’s disastrous engagement off Gulltown, the Battle of the Wailing Willows, the failure of Orys’ center at the Last Storm – and arguably only the three dragons had allowed House Targaryen to achieve ultimate victory in each of their major battles against the Hoares, the Durrandons, and the Arryns. The patrons of the chroniclers may have decided that it would be impolitic to tarnish Aegon’s great victory with the defeat of his army. Another possibility is that the collapse of the Targaryen center was a feigned rout (link), intended to draw the enemy inwards while surrounding them on the flanks. I find this latter explanation less likely, given that this would draw the enemy away from the dragonflames carefully set downwind of the Targaryen infantry.

But regardless of how close Mern IX might have come to eking out some kind of victory, the Field of Fire would be the burial not only of his hopes, but of his entire House:

 “More than four thousand men died in the flames. Another thousand perished from sword and spears and arrows. Tens of thousands suffered burns, some so bad that they remained scarred for life. King Mern IX was amongst the dead, together with his sons, grandsons, brothers, cousins, and other kin. One nephew survived for three days. When he died of his burns, House Gardener died with him.”(WOIAF)

Because of Mern’s desire for glory, House Gardener experienced a fate that, other than them, only the Hoares shared – total extinction, with the whole of the male line perishing in a single conflict.[3] It is hard to explain how momentous this was: House Gardener had created the Reach as an idea and ruled over its ever-expanding borders for the whole of recorded history. The sense of chaos, uncertainty, and alienation that the political class of the Reach must have felt can only be compared to the people of the North following the fall of the Starks. And so it is highly surprising that the Reach did not fall apart and remained intact as a political entity for the next three hundred years.

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A Disputed Succession

It is here that Garth Greenhand’s legendary commitment to sowing his wild oats may have saved the Reach, because rather than each fiefdom going its own separate ways, the most powerful lords were all potential claimants to Highgarden itself and so preferred lawsuits to independence:

“Afterward, a number of the other great houses of the Reach complained bitterly about being made vassals of an “upjumped steward” and insisted that their own blood was far nobler than that of the Tyrells. It cannot be denied that the Oakhearts of Old Oak, the Florents of Brightwater Keep, the Rowans of Goldengrove, the Peakes of Starpike, and the Redwynes of the Arbor all had older and more distinguished lineages than the Tyrells, and closer blood ties to House Gardener as well. Their protests were of no avail, however … mayhaps in part because all these houses had taken up arms against Aegon and his sisters on the Field of Fire, whereas the Tyrells had not.” (WOIAF)

In other words, 40% of the principal Houses of the Reach made a formal, legal claim for Highgarden against their overlords, which is a high bar for any new liege lord to overcome. (Interestingly, House Hightower is not mentioned as one of the claimants, which is surprising given that they are clearly the oldest house remaining in the Reach, they have clear blood ties to House Gardener in both the male and female line, and they didn’t fight Aegon at the Field of Fire.)

Luckily for Harlan Tyrell, he was holding a rather significant legal trump card – a direct grant from the new King of Westeros. Because Harlan “Tyrell yielded up the keys to the castle without a fight and pledged his support to the conquering king,” Aegon had “granted him Highgarden and all its domains, naming him Warden of the South and Lord Paramount of the Mander, and giving him dominion over all House Gardener’s former vassals.” (WOIAF) This grant of land (“Highgarden and all its domains”), lordship (“dominion over all House Gardener’s former vassals”), and royal title (“Warden of the South and Lord Paramount”) made it quite clear that Aegon the Conqueror himself had stated quite clearly who the rightful heir to the Gardeners was. This gave the Tyrells something of an advantage compared to the Tullys (link): by making their feudal bargain with the Targaryens at the same time that they rendered service instead of after, they ensured that they were given the “high seat” so that they could actually exercise authority over their realm, as well as additional royal rewards (notably no Tully was made a Warden).

At the same time, Aegon’s settlement was only ironclad as long as Aegon himself was alive – just as the Tullys found themselves challenged by Red Harren and other rebels, Harlan Tyrell’s heir found it necessary to turn “his attention to consolidating Tyrell power by arranging a council of septons and maesters to examine and finally dismiss some of the more persistent of the claims to Highgarden by those who insisted that the seat was theirs.” (WOIAF) This suggests that the legal case between the Florents et al. and the Tyrells was still ongoing a generation later, and that it was destabilizing enough to “Tyrell power” to require a significant expenditure of “soft power,” in this case by turning to both the Faith of the Seven and the Citadel of the Maesters to provide a legitimizing and justifying authority to buttress House Tyrell’s own. As we’ll see later, despite this appeal to both faith and reason, several of the litigants remained unreconciled to the point of creating major political divisions for the next three hundred years.

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House Tyrell under the Dragons

But if the Reach was not completely reconciled to the rule of House Tyrell by the magic of that Targaryen name, the Tyrells did have another option to mobilize their kingdom behind a common project, and thus indirectly bolster their rule: anti-Dornish nationalism. The First Dornish War had enormous potential for House Tyrell: not only could the Tyrells harness the ancient grudges against the Dornish held by all Reachermen to get their bannermen to follow them, but also as the Warden of the South, Harlan Tyrell was one of the major leaders in the war effort (second only to Aegon and his Queens and the Lord Hand Orys Baratheon) and thus at the front of the line for lands and loot.

Unfortunately for Harlan Tyrell, the conquest of Dorne would not be an easy conquest, and in the grueling campaign to come, Reachermen would be called upon to do the bulk of the fighting:

“Aegon and Lord Tyrell warred in the Prince’s Pass against the mountain lords. The Dornish defenders harried and ambushed the Targaryen forces, then would scamper beneath their rocks as soon as they saw the dragons take flight. Many of Lord Tyrell’s men died of sun and thirst as they marched on Hellholt. Those who survived to reach the castle found it empty, the Ullers all fled.”

“Queen Rhaenys and King Aegon gathered what courtiers and functionaries remained and declared themselves the victors, placing Dorne under the rule of the Iron Throne. Leaving Lord Rosby to hold Sunspear and Lord Tyrell in charge of a host to put down any revolts, the Targaryens returned to King’s Landing on the backs of their dragons. Yet they had hardly set foot in the royal city than Dorne rebelled against them… Setting out with his garrison at Hellholt to conquer Vaith and retake Sunspear, Lord Harlan Tyrell and his entire army vanished in the sands, never to be heard from again. The reports of travelers in the area claim that occasionally the winds shift the sands to reveal bones and pieces of armor, but the sandy Dornishmen who wander the deep desert say that the sands are the burial grounds of thousands of years of battles, and the bones might be from any time.” (WOIAF)

Far from finding gold or glory or land in Dorne, all that the Reachermen found in Dorne was death – first through guerilla warfare in the Prince’s Pass, then through dehydration and exposure in the death march from the pass through the desert to Hellholt, and then by ambush in the march to retake Sunspear. Nor could they be sure that their loved ones would be safe, as “Ser Joffrey Dayne marched to the very walls of Oldtown, razing the fields and villages outside it,” and the Wyl of Wyl managed to raid all the way up to Old Oak. Their only consolation is that Harlan Tyrell, that “capable steward,” ended his life alongside his men, and only got to enjoy his lordship for five years.

A hundred and fifty years later, another Lord Tyrell would follow in Harlan’s footsteps, as Lyonel Tyrell parlayed his Wardenship into a position close to Daeron I during his campaign to conquer Dorne. Once again, the Tyrells would be called upon to provide the bulk of the Targaryen land forces, as “Daeron divided his host into three forces: one led by Lord Tyrell” who “[led] the main thrust over the Prince’s Pass.” This time, unlike his ancestor (who led the Targaryen armies in Dorne while Lord Rosby was made Warden of the Sands and Castellan of Sunspear), Lyonel gained mightily from his service:

“Yet by 159 AC the hinterlands were pacified, and the Young Dragon was free to return in triumph to King’s Landing, leaving Lord Tyrell in Dorne to keep the peace…” “(WOIAF)

“When the Young Dragon conquered Dorne so long ago, he left the Lord of Highgarden to rule us after the Submission of Sunspear. This Tyrell moved with his tail from keep to keep, chasing rebels and making certain that our knees stayed bent. He would arrive in force, take a castle for his own, stay a moon’s turn, and ride on to the next castle. It was his custom to turn the lords out of their own chambers and take their beds for himself.” (ASOS, Tyrion IX)

But just as Harlan’s service in Dorne ended poorly, Lyonel found that, in gaining the lordship of all of Dorne, he had bitten off more than he could chew. As he “valiantly attempted to quell the fires of rebellion, traveling from castle to castle with each turn of the moon—punishing any supporters of the rebels with the noose, burning down the villages that harbored the outlaws,” he found himself mired in a quagmire of guerilla warfare against an enemy who could not be treated with nor brought to surrender. And so, one night, Lyonel’s enjoyment of the “perks” of rulership led to him sleeping in a bed of red scorpions and the death of tens of thousands of Reachermen. And just as the First Dornish War hardened many hearts against the Dornish, Daeron’s Conquest would influence Reach politics for generations to come .

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Credit to Tomasz Jedrusek

Given the long and ignominious record of disaster, anti-Dornish nationalism proved to be a dead-end for uniting the Reach behind the rule of House Tyrell or for gaining royal favor in the long-term. Instead, the Reach would divide badly during the major civil wars that rocked the Targaryen monarchy, with the choosing of sides often acting as a proxy for ongoing conflicts over House Tyrell’s rule. In the lead-up to the Dance of the Dragons (link), we can see a clear case of the Hightowers becoming overmighty vassals: despite Matthos Tyrell bringing “five hundred in his retinue” to the Great Council of 101 in an attempt to exercise national influence, it was the Hightowers who benefited by taking the Handship and Viserys I’s hand in marriage, forming the foundation and leadership of the Green faction at court.  Thus, while Matthos’ untimely death meant that the Tyrells “played no part in the Dance of the Dragons, as the young Lord Tyrell was at the time a babe in swaddling clothes, and his mother and castellan chose to keep Highgarden out of that dreadful, fratricidal bloodbath,” the rest of the Reach would not be so lucky. The Hightowers, Peakes, Roxtons, Fossoways, and Redwynes would fight for the Greens, while the Beesburys, Caswells, Costaynes, Rowans, and Tarlys would fight for the Blacks, clashing at the Battle of the Honeywine, and at First and Second Tumbleton. While not devastated as badly as the Riverlands, the Reach would see one of its few cities destroyed, with “thousands burned, thousands more drowned attempting to swim across the river to safety,” (WOIAF) and the survivors put to the sword or worse by their fellow Reachermen. No wonder that, a generation later, Tyrells would need a foreign war to unite his kingdom.

Likewise, the Reach would prove to be the heart of Daemon Blackfyre’s support during the First Blackfyre Rebellion. Due in part to Aegon IV’s revival of the Dornish Wars – or more precisely, by the sudden U-Turn from Aegon IV’s war policy to Daeron II’s peace policy – and due in part to Daemon Blackfyre’s personal exemplification of the knightly ideal, twelve Houses of the Reach would rebel openly against the Iron Throne, with another three dividing their support between the Blacks and the Reds. Worth noting is that, of those houses who sided either wholly or partly with the Blackfyres were several of the original litigants who had challenged House Tyrell’s succession to Highgarden, including the ambitious and disruptive House Peake and the venerable House Oakheart. And while it remains speculation that their motivation for siding with the Black Dragon was in the hope that a new king might reverse Aegon’s donation of Highgarden, it would fit the larger pattern of ambitious second Houses supporting the Black Dragon while their Lords Paramount supported the Red.

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At the same time, the Blackfyre Rebellion marked an interesting moment in the history of House Tyrell: despite such widespread disloyalty in his own backyard, the celebrated warrior Luthor Tyrell took no action (or was unable to take any action) against his bannermen until after the Battle of Redgrass Field had sent the Blackfyre army scattering for their homes:

“Lord Leo also won distinction during the First Blackfyre Rebellion, winning notable victories against Daemon Blackfyre’s adherents in the Reach, though his forces were unable to gather quickly enough to arrive in time for the Battle of the Redgrass Field.” (WOIAF)

Whether Leo Longthorn’s dilatory behavior during the First Blackfyre Rebellion was due to a cautious desire to prevent his overthrow by his subjects or perhaps even secret negotiations with Daemon Blackfyre to avoid this fate, it is “notable” indeed that Leo’s major victories were against his own rebellious bannermen, at a time when he could most easily achieve a victory against them, and thereby cut down his “over-mighty” subjects down to size. Thus, the period after 196 AC may have seen a gradual increase in Tyrell power vis-à-vis their subjects, which could well explain why Aegon V was looking to marry into House Tyrell in order to pursue his reform agenda.

Certainly, between 240 AC and 270, we can see the Tyrells re-orientating their long-term political strategy through a series of dynastic marriages (link) that sought to re-knit the bonds of interest and affinity between House Tyrell and their subjects: first, Luthor Tyrell was wed to Olenna Redwyne, then his son Mace was wed to Alerie Hightower, his daughter Janna into House Fossoway, and his daughter Mina to Olenna’s nephew Paxter Redwyne. (At the same time, the Redwynes and Hightowers were then married into House Rowan, bringing that House into the fold albeit more loosely.) Each of those Houses were either former litigants with a claim on Highgarden (thus consolidating their claims with House Tyrell’s) or had supported fully or partly the Blackfyres (thus helping to heal any remaining wounds from the Blackfyre Rebellions). Thus, over the course of a generation, the Tyrells gradually built up the political credit they would need for Mace’s Gambit with Renly and Margaery to have even a hope of succeeding.

Internal Divisions:

As we have seen throughout this essay, the Reach’s abundance has not meant that it has been free of internal strife – indeed, the mere fact of that abundance has historically meant that there was more to fight over and more people who wanted to fight over it. However, we have seen that the Reach has handled its divisions differently than other regions, allowing it to contain (if not entirely eliminate) these conflicts more effectively than, say the Brackens and the Blackwoods.

The first case we have to deal with is the Peakes and the Manderlys, a conflict which stretches back to the pre-Andal era when “Gwayne the Fat persuaded Lord Peake and Lord Manderly to accept his judgment on their quarrel.” (WOIAF) Given that their feud was already well-entrenched by the time of one of the earlier successors to Garth the Gardener, the Peake-Manderly feud might well pre-date that of the Brackens and Blackwoods. But unlike their more northerly parallels, the Peakes and Manderlys didn’t actively destabilize their kingdom, largely due to the superior state-development of the Gardeners who had constructed a monarchy that could effectively deter both parties. The one major exception to this long period of peace was during the reign of Garth X, when “Lord Peake had married one of his daughters, Lord Manderly another, and each was determined that his wife should succeed.” Even this civil war was due more to the personal incapacities of the ruler than a sign of any long-term damage to the state, as can be demonstrated by how Ser Osmund Tyrell was able to defeat “both the Peakes and Manderlys” once the strength of the Reach was brought to bear.

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The more significant departure is the decision by King Perceon III Gardener, who was persuaded by Lord Lorimar Peake to permanently end the feud through the extreme means of exiling one of the two parties, ensuring that the Manderlys’ “swelling power in the Reach” would be cut short by their exile. This case actually acts as a rather good answer to hypothetical questions as to what would have happened had either the Brackens or Blackwoods be somehow eliminated, because in the end, the removal of the Manderlys didn’t solve the larger problem of “over-mighty vassals” in the Reach. Instead, tipping the balance to the Peakes simply made them more powerful and more ambitious, leading them to become leading participants in the Dance of the Dragons, the political unrest of the False Dawn of Aegon III’s regency, and the Blackfyre Rebellions.

The second, related case we have to deal with is the case of the litigants. As we’ve seen above, the ongoing dispute over who the rightful heir to House Gardener was has been a major destabilizing force in Reach politics for the last three hundred years. And given how touchy medieval lords got about kings redistributing fiefdoms, I’m not surprised that we saw the Peakes and Oakhearts as major players during the Blackfyre Rebellions. My only real criticism from a world-building perspective is that the Florents are a bit too weak to be taken seriously as a real threat to Tyrell rule in the Reach, requiring of harsher treatment than the Peakes got after the Peake Uprising. Moreover, it’s surprising that all of the other litigants remained staunch Tyrell loyalists even after the death of Renly Baratheon – the Fossoways had more ties to House Tyrell than the Rowans did but still chose Stannis’ side, so why did the Oakhearts not seek advantage by doing the same?

Strengths and Weaknesses:

At the end of the day, however, the Reach’s internal divisions have only rarely been allowed to persist long enough to endanger the kingdom, and unlike the Riverlands I would not count disunity as their major weakness as a polity.

Rather, the Reach’s strength and weakness is the same thing – its own strength. When wielded skillfully by statesmen who understand its extents and limits, the power of the Reach has been used to build the strongest of the Seven Kingdoms and successfully defend it against the crab-bucket tendencies of the Great Game. But at the same time, the chivalric culture of the Reach often gets drunk on the legends of its might, encouraging over-ambitious over-extension. Before the coming of the Targaryens, this glory-seeking behavior saw the might of the Reach squandered in an attempt by Gyles III Gardener and his literal and spiritual successors to try to conquer the Stormlands. After, the same dream of universal empire would lead Mace Tyrell to risk everything in a Queen’s Gambit to win the Iron Throne itself.

And with the Tyrells called upon to be the workhorses of the fracturing Lannister/Tyrell alliance – fighting its battles at the Blackwater and Duskendale, besieging Dragonstone and Storm’s End, besieging Brightwater Keep and defending the Reach from Ironborn assault, defending Queen Margaery at King’s Landing and fighting off Aegon VI’s invasion – it’s only a matter of time before the Reach finds itself spread too thinly, trying to fight too many battles at once.

Superbia et ante ruinam exaltatur…

[1] Although Tyrion in AGOT mentions that they had “ten times as many freeriders and men-at-arms,” (adding up to 50,000 men and further calling into question the numbers here) which suggests that the Western Alliance’s army was all-cavalry. Perhaps the plan was to use mobility to try to deny the Targaryens a target for their dragons?

[2] Another, partial explanation, is that since House Hightower held back its men from the battle, that Mern IX was not fighting with the full strength of the Reach.

[3] Interestingly, we don’t know anything of the female line of House Gardener. Given how many sons, grandsons, brothers, cousins, and nephews were of military age by the Field of Fire, it’s highly unlikely that there were no daughters, grand-daughters, sisters, cousins, and nieces of the House of Gardener. One explanation is that these ladies were married into the various Houses who made a claim on Highgarden, as discussed below.

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48 thoughts on “Politics of the Seven Kingdoms: The Reach (Part IV)

  1. Andrew says:

    1. Another reason for the numbers of Mern IX was that he needed to keep his southern border secure. The Dornish already took advantage of the situation to assault the Stormlands, and who is to say they wouldn’t attempt the same on the Reach if given the opportunity?

    2. I think we’ll get a second Field of Fire. I mean, come one, a Casterly Rock-Highgarden alliance facing a Targaryen with three dragons. Tyrion would likely entice Mace to lead a frontal cavalry charge (possibly by putting all is weakest infantry at the front).

    3. The Tyrells being the only Lords Paramount to have been stewards and not kings or even lords for that matter, seems to have stuck with them even three hundred years later as Olenna points out.

    • 1. Good point. I think that fell out of the drafting process, because I didn’t like the way I had phrased it.

      2. Maybe, but I think the Tyrells are going to be undone by Aegon VI first.

      3. True.

  2. Sean C. says:

    One possible explanation here is that, the Lannisters and Gardeners didn’t in fact mobilize the whole of their strength for the fight against the Targaryens, as they needed to keep back men to guard their respective borders from any attempt of one party to stab the other in the back. (This still doesn’t explain the “the mightiest host ever seen in Westeros” line, however.)

    Possibly this indicates that the greater peace and prosperity of the post-Conquest period lead to a huge increase in population. The nearly 80 years of peace under Jaehaerys I and Viserys I, especially, would have been ideal for an enormous population boom. The military capabilities of some areas, such as the North, don’t seem to have grown at all over the same period, but arguably the cycle of winters imposes a cap on Northern population size that doesn’t exist in the sunnier southern areas.

  3. Abbey Battle says:

    Maester Steven, might I suggest that there is another very plausible reason for the surprisingly-modest tally of the Great Western Army at the Field of Fire:

    Quite bluntly a powerful lot of Lords and Knights were scared spitless by the fate of Argilac the Arrogant and Black Harren, then decided they were better able to cope with the consequences of failing to answer a call to arms than they were likely to survive a Dance with Dragons who could incinerate an army, burn a fleet to ashes or MELT A CASTLE.

    One would also like to point out that “a troubling lack of Clarity” is exactly what you can expect from an action where the majority of participants were mounted and the battlefield was ON FIRE (sheer panic probably explains any confusion in the sources).

    Finally I would like to suggest that it makes perfect sense for Aegon the Dragon’s army to be far smaller than one might expect:

    (1) The Targaryens have only just finished decapitating the Stormland’s leadership and have yet to establish effective control over the area (with Lord Orys presumably keeping a garrison behind to make sure no diehards get any bright ideas), having also seriously thinned out a generation of Lords & Knights into the bargain in a series of hard-fought battles.

    (2) The Crownlands have only very recently ceased to be a Border March fought over for a generation (torn between the Ironborn and the Storm King), presumably leaving their Military Power diminished to start with and further diminished when they were obliged to fight at the forefront of the Conquest (taking heavy casualties at the Wailing Willows and the harrying which preceded the Last Storm).

    Remember also that there’s no Kings Landing to bolster recruitment numbers either.

    (3) It is noted that The Lords of the Trident make up the bulk of The Conqueror’s force, presumably quite willingly after seeing their Hated Tyrant incinerated in spectacular style, but even so The North and the Vale remain credible threats in Aegon’s rear as he turns to confront the Grand Army of the West – it seems plausible to presume that The Conqueror gathered his sisters to him so that he could leave substantial garrisons to secure his rear, while still amassing a degree of force sufficient to incinerate the Kings of Reach & Rock.

    Having said all that I would still like to say that this has been a most excellent series of Articles Maester Steven and I look forward to seeing the last few entries in this series; I am particularly looking forward to your article on the Stormlands (as that Kingdom holds a special place in my heart, but also because I look forward to seeing what you make of such a bite-sized subject after chewing through the enormous hunk of beef represented by The Reach!).

    Keep Well.

    • I can buy that many lords stayed away – certainly, that’s what the Hightowers did. But that isn’t consistent with the “largest host ever” thing, because that wouldn’t be the case in earlier wars.

      I guess the weirdness is how light Aegon’s numbers here are later compared to how more robust they are just a bit later when Torrhen Stark marches south.

      And glad you liked it!

      • Murc says:

        I guess the weirdness is how light Aegon’s numbers here are later compared to how more robust they are just a bit later when Torrhen Stark marches south.

        To be fair, after the Field of Fire and Harrenhal Aegon had now demonstrated that sitting in your castle won’t save you, and taking the field won’t save you. At that point you’re gonna go all in on the Conqueror. You might even convince yourself that you want to go all in, that Aegon is clearly touched by destiny in some way.

        • Abbey Battle says:

          The Northern Army also makes an excellent “Other” for the South to rally against, even if that means they must rally around The Conqueror (The High Septon’s Blessing must also count for more than a little).

      • Abbey Battle says:

        It is not impossible that descriptions of the Great Western Alliance as the “Largest Host Ever” were true as of 1-3AC, but that larger Hosts have been assembled since; could it be that given the pivotal nature of the Field of Fire to The Conquest people might well continue to proclaim the Defeated Host “Largest Ever” out of sheer Historical Inertia?

  4. Abbey Battle says:

    I completely forgot to suggest this as part of the larger ramble above, but regarding those “Lords Litigant” who kept faith with House Tyrell even in the face of Stannis Baratheon’s apparently-impending Triumph one could advance any number of reasons for failing to quite the Golden Rose for the Fiery Hart –

    (1) They may have a particular grudge against Lord Stannis – or he may have a grudge against them – dating from the Siege of Storm’s End and the casualties inflicted by stubborn persistence on one side and patient endurance on the other.

    (2) They may simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time to seize the initiative – for example they may have been with the Foot, rather than the Horse (Lady Arwyn Oakheart seems particularly likely to find herself in such an awkward spot).

    (3) Stannis Baratheon has no sons and Mace Tyrell has three (which means that any advantage to be gained from backing the Fiery Hart may be too short-term to counterbalance the serious risk that the sons of Lord Mace bearing grudges against those that forsook their Father).

    (4) House Florent may have cost Lord Stannis almost as many friends as they brought with them to his cause.

    (5) The Red Lady may well be more a liability than an asset when winning Loyalty in The Reach, given that region remains a traditional heartland of The Faith – which Lord Stannis has explicitly turned his hand against by his various acts of pyromaniac iconoclasm – and the influence of The Starry Sept might also be coupled with revulsion from The Citadel.

    • Abbey Battle says:

      I almost completely forgot to add that quite a few Noble Lords were probably sniffing around the not-quite-Royal Widow to boot …

    • 1. Maybe.

      2. Especially in the Reach, you’d expect every House to send both horse and foot, no?

      3. Eh.

      4. That’s possible, but then again House Florent needs to be adjusted to be a bigger threat to make that work.

      5. Ok, but why do the Fossoways of all people not care?

      • Abbey Battle says:

        2. I understood you to be referring to the period after the demise of King Renly, when the Great Southern Host actually came apart – the point at which Ladies & Lords would have been most likely to jump Ship.

        My understanding is that while a majority of the Chivalry followed the Golden Stag to Storm’s End, a certain portion of the Aristocracy elected to remain with the Foot while the Cavalry rode out, which would leave them less well-placed to pledge their services to King Stannis (especially if House Tyrell took the precaution of exerting themselves to corral any potential Waverers after receiving news of Lord Renly’s assassination).

  5. medrawt says:

    I figure that in advance of the Field of Fire, the Two Kings’ strategic choices were dictated in part by the reality of dragons, but also in part by not fully understanding the reality of dragons.

    They’re bringing the men they bring to fight a battle against men. An extra thirty thousand soldiers aren’t going to do anything to help kill a dragon, so just count on winning the battle conventionally, and if you don’t think a 5 to 1 advantage is enough to do that, you might as well stay home. Leave the rest of your manpower behind to guard the homeland and till the fields. I figure this is Garland and Lannister being smart enough to know that just bringing more spears isn’t going to overawe the thing that half-melted Harrenhall.

    On the other hand, they don’t REALLY know what it’s going to be like. If they did they would’ve tried something different. Including possibly bringing as many men as possible in the hope that enough would survive the conflagration long enough to win the conventional battle. But how many would be enough, and could you really commit to such a horrific plan of attrition?

    • Brett says:

      Wouldn’t dividing their hosts have been more effective in neutralizing the dragons’ advantage? Divided hosts means they have to separate the dragons, and are only capable of using maybe one of them on the field at a time unless they want to let one of the armies march unmolested into Aegon’s new territories.

      • medrawt says:

        I don’t think they were trying to neutralize the dragons’ advantage; I think they almost recognized the dragons as an out of context problem and hoped for the best if they ignored them and tried to solve the problem they knew how to solve (10,000 men on the ground). I think basically they assumed there wasn’t much they could do about the dragons but didn’t really comprehend how much the dragons could do to them, and how quickly. Only Brandon Snow seems to have had an actual plan for striking at the dragons directly; everybody else is muddling along hoping it’ll be fine, but it turns out not to be fine:

        The Durrandons are defeated without dragons.
        The Arryns don’t even think about the dragons at all because they’re conditioned to think elevation will keep them safe. When it doesn’t they capitulate.
        The Hoares think the stout walls of Harrenhall will keep them safe; they roast.
        The Lannisters and Gardeners know the dragon was capable of turning Harrenhall into an oven, but they probably don’t realize that the dragon will be able to set an entire army on fire almost at once.

    • Lucerys says:

      Most of the South probably had little experience or knowledge on how to deal with dragons outside stories from Essos. The Dornish did seem to know enough to take down one dragon, probably form their Rhoynish ancestors who did have experience fighting dragons.

      • Murc says:

        To be fair, the Dornish got lucky. “Put a scorpion bolt precisely through the eye of a rapidly moving armored flying hellbeast at range while it is incinerating everything around it” ain’t what you’d call a reliable strategy unless your name is Bard the Bowman.

  6. gbajithedeceiver says:

    So it is my suspicion that the reason the Hightowers didn’t make a stronger bid to immediately succeed the Gardners is that they, in close consultation with the Citadel, made the early decision to work to eliminate rather than accommodate the dragocracy.

    • I lament that WordPress’s commenting system doesn’t let me respond with the Always Sunny red string gif.

    • Hedrigal says:

      I highly highly doubt that there was any kind of anti-dragon conspiracy before the Dance. There was seemingly no progress made towards eliminating the dragons in that time.

    • Sean C. says:

      There’s no evidence that any sort of anti-dragon conspiracy existed at any time prior to the Dance. It makes more sense that the Citadel’s getting rid of the dragons was a reaction to the chaos of dragon vs. dragon warfare, seeing as for 130 years the dragons only got stronger, and there was an era of unparalleled peace and prosperity built on the back of dragonpower.

      Moreover, for the Hightowers specifically, they went out of their way to acquire dragons in that same period, via Ser Otto and Alicent’s attempt to gain control over the dynasty.

  7. Brett says:

    The lead-up to the Field of Fire almost strains belief a little. Why did they mobilize such a large single host when they knew their opponent had three giant dragons to target it with?

    • Murc says:

      Chivalry is a hell of a drug.

      • Hedrigal says:

        Even then, the Lannisters could have attacked the Riverlands when the Reach is going in to do battle with Aegon. That way it could even be a division of Aegons kingdom between them assuming they win, with the Westerlands getting the Riverlands, and the Reach getting the Stormlands.

    • Grant says:

      Because they hadn’t seen a dragon roast an army before. They knew that the Hoares were killed by fire, but that can be explained as the consequence of making yourself a sitting target. They knew that Argillac failed to break his enemy, but they knew that his cavalry had been fighting in bad conditions. They were probably vaguely aware of Valryian history, but even if they remembered the Rhoynish wars, that was a gigantic flight of dragons.

      They were trained in cavalry charges, lines of infantry, numbers deciding the day. It was how their ancestors had made their kingdoms, or at least how they chose to remember it, it was how they would fight threats to their independence. Smash the enemy soldiers, shoot down the dragons and move around any fire that they spew, it’ll work out. Except that, as it turned out, they were very wrong and all the lessons they’d learned were counterproductive (to put it mildly).

    • Hedrigal says:

      The thinking was that by raising such a large host was that even if the Dragons are capable of killing many, their superior numbers will still win the conventional battle, and no matter how great a threat dragons are, three dragons couldn’t kill all of them, so they’d either force Aegon to run, or cause the dragons to collapse in exhaustion.

  8. Murc says:

    While GRRM is notoriously bad with numbers, the full strength of the Rock and the Reach together should have added up to 145,000 men, with around 48,000 knights – suggesting that only 40% of their total strength, and a mere 10% of their precious knights were committed to the fight.

    I think we have to put this in the same basket with the numbers of the hosts in Robert’s Rebellion, sadly. As in: there is no Watsonian explanation, there is merely the Doylist explanation that Martin fucked up and Elio and Linda either didn’t catch it or didn’t care.

    I fear trying to come up with an in-universe reason is going to founder on the shoals of implausibility.

    Loren I was demoted to commanding the right wing on par with Lord Oakheart’s command of the left.

    This does seem to really indicated the Gardeners were holding the whip hand; I mean, if you have the center and the van, it seems like the fair thing to do is give your ally the right AND the left.

    Aegon is outnumbered (although it’s slightly odd that he could only pull together 10,000 men given that the Crownlands, Riverlands, and Stormlands can field at least 60,000 men between them),

    This is something I do think we can get an in-universe explanation for.

    The Riverlands have been despoiled by the Hoares for three generations, their blood, treasure, and manpower depleted in wars with the Stormlands, Halleck smashing his head against the Bloody Gate, internecine feuding encouraged to keep the Riverlords divided against each other, and of course the building of Harrenhal. They also just got invaded and there was all kinds of treason and killing going on.

    The Stormlands have been involved in a bunch of shitty wars and just got invaded and had their ruling house decapitated and replaced with Orys Baratheon, who most of the Stormlords are going to regard as so far socially beneath them it isn’t even funny; a lowborn bastard who has decided he is worthy to sit the seat of Durran Godsgrief. (I’m assuming lowborn, anyway; he has a proper last name, which usually indicates higher-than-peasant social standing, but we know next to nothing about the Baratheons before their ascent.)

    The Crownlands are in more or less the same state as the Riverlands.

    Given all the chaos, turmoil, death, destruction, and uncertainty, I’m prepared to say that ten thousand men is a bit on the low side, but well within the realm of possibility. Take “shows up with ten men when you could have brought a hundred” and multiple that a ton of times.

    Luckily for Harlan Tyrell, he was holding a rather significant legal trump card – a direct grant from the new King of Westeros.

    I think that this, more than anything else, goes a long way to explaining why Mace Tyrell supported House Targaryen “to the bitter end and well beyond.” Their claim to Highgarden rests almost entirely on House Targaryen’s authority to have bestowed it upon them; they need that legitimacy in ways the other Lords Paramount do not.

    If you look at the structure of Robert’s Rebellion… the Targaryens had loyalists all through the seven kingdoms, this is true. But House Tyrell is the only Great House that goes all in on the Targaryens when the Targaryens don’t have a hostage. The Greyjoys stand aside, the Lannisters effectively stand aside until the Trident, etc. The Martells have an immediate blood tie and the beloved sister of the Prince of Dorne is in the power of Aerys. The other houses rise in revolt. The Tyrells, tho… they don’t need to be kept sweet. They answer the call of the Mad King and stick with him.

    In my opinion, that has to be because of how they got, and maintained, their Lord Paramountcy.

    This gave the Tyrells something of an advantage compared to the Tullys (link):

    I have a pretty good idea of where that link would go, but it is non-existent; I think you missed it in editing.

    But at the same time, the chivalric culture of the Reach often gets drunk on the legends of its might, encouraging over-ambitious over-extension.

    Legitimate question, Steven: do you think that the Field of Fire can be viewed through this lens?

    Because I believe it can, and I think there’s a strong case to be made. The Targaryens have their flying magic dinosaur WMDs. The dragons with which the Freehold of Valyria (which is only a century in its grave) conquered and maintained the greatest empire the world has ever known, with which they reduced the Ghiscari to servitude and the Rhoynar to either ash or an exiled people. They’re the ultimate force multiplier, and they’ve already been used to reduce House Hoare to nothing.

    Yet, the Reach sallies forth to meet them, in the open, with no cover and no plan of attack beyond “Charge!”

    And I think they do this because of the chivalric ideal. Because the lords and nobles of the Reach are knights, and knights slay dragons and win battles. Many of the men who rode to the Field of Fire probably believed, subconsciously if not openly, that Balerion would conveniently land on the ground to fight them, and they would skillfully navigate around his flame breath and plunge their lances into his stomach after a great charge, winning glory and renown as dragonslayers.

    As for why nobody ever did that before if it was so easy… well, the heathen folk of the east weren’t knights. A knight is anointed before the gods, each and every one of them is a blessed hero. And they have the entire house of their ancient kings with them! How can they fail?

    One expects better sense from the Lannisters, but the Gardeners were the only allies they had left at that point and unlike the Gardeners House Lannister survives to prosper. And with Mern as the senior partner, one imagines Loren saw some value in at least trying to meet the Targaryens and their horrible hell-monsters in battle, especially since the alternative is surrendering your millenia-old throne.

    • So many links, I always miss one. Will fix.

      Absolutely the Field of Fire can be seen as this – I mean, they had a decent plan for dealing with the infantry and it seems to have worked, but they didn’t have one for the Dragons.

  9. Pretty good, though I’m surprised we don’t have more on how Aegon B̶l̶a̶c̶k̶f̶y̶r̶e̶ Targaryen might disturb the balance of Reach power, due to the theories that Rowan and Tarly will join him and that the Tarlys are Blackfyre loyalists (comparisons between Samwell/Daeron and Dickon/Daemon).

    I suppose the reason more Houses don’t split from the Tyrells to Stannis is because… Stannis needs to lose the Blackwater to become the King Westeros needs, after all GRRM does have to make some jumps in writing to make the Lannisters win the war.

    But nice analysis on the Tyrell weakness of a shaky claim.

    As Aegor says:
    Yet are there not some lords who fondly hope
    That they might sit where now their lieges rule
    And earn as they the homage thus reserv’d?

    It was a problem then and it’s a problem now. Mace thinks it’s eliminated with the Florents exiled, but he doesn’t see the danger close to him, and I look forward to the False Fat Flower dying through treachery, what sweet irony.

    I suppose the reason the Florents are weaker then they should be (having like 5000 troops would probably work better) is that… mayhaps they supported the Blackfyres as Nina writes them doing, and thus they lost land. Mayhaps they particularly badly lost men in Robert’s Rebellion. It wouldn’t surprise me if Mace Uriah Gambited them in battles, that does sound a little Roose but Mace can be ruthless, or Roose-less… sorry terrible pun. Mace is a bit Boris Johnson-esque, with the guise of an amiable buffoon, but really a power-hungry, cunning sleazy Politician with good image politics who happily backstabs.

    I do wonder how the Florents can claim male line descent, mayhaps it’s something like the Hornwood case, a younger Gardener son with a Florent mother being made Lord of Brightwater Keep. The Florents may have even claimed the Tyrells had supported Salic Law, with a male line relative being placed on the throne after L̶e̶a̶r̶ Garth X’s death rather then Garth’s female-line descendants.

    So all in all, a pretty good essay.

    • Hedrigal says:

      Yeah, but giving Stannis such a comparably small amount makes it seem like the deck is stacked against him in the long run. He could in the very least have risen the ten thousand men the Stormlands didn’t provide him.

    • The reason I didn’t discuss it is that this is Part IV of just one essay. The damn thing is enormous.

  10. Hedrigal says:

    Honestly, looking at the history, it doesn’t seem like the Florents are a real rival of the Tyrells throughout this. They’re more proud than powerful given what Stannis says their forces would be. Conceivably the emphasis on the rivalry on the Tyrell side would come form the fact that because they’re weak they can just be destroyed where a more powerful lord could atleast hope to hold their castle.

    But then, it often feels like the ASOIAF period has an extremely unusual level of dynamism in politics compared to history, with rebels being totally dispossessed and their lands being granted to new people, rather than a historical tendency towards the same family holding onto the same seat for thousands upon thousands of years.

    • Sean C. says:

      Yeah, the backstory of ASOIAF doesn’t really supply any evidence for the idea that the Florents are a house of any consequence in the Reach’s political history.

      • Hedrigal says:

        I mean, I won’t doubt if they’re claimed as a principal house, there’s some of those who don’t receive much more mention than them in AWOIF. But I doubt they’re a primary rival in reality.

        • Abbey Battle says:

          Could House Baratheon have cultivated a connection with House Florent (as opposed to a stronger descendent of the “Lords Litigant”) precisely because these particular claimants would depend on the Royal Favour to back their claim in a way that some larger or more prestigious House would not?

          On another level one could suggest that House Baratheon was seeking to have its cake and eat it; the implicit threat of backing another claimant to Highgarden remains, but clearly remains an Option to be kept in reserve, rather than the opening moves of a Power Play designed to oust House Tyrell RIGHT NOW.

          • Hedrigal says:

            No, because ultimately they would still rely heavily on the crown for the claim, and unlike the Florents their claim would be credible on the basis of arms. I can only assume that the Florents were the only house with an available daughter not currently alligned closely with the Tyrells, given how the Tyrells appear to be practicing a specific policy of marrying their rivals.

      • A good point. You’d think after writing ACOK/ASOS, GRRM would have included them a bit more in WOIAF.

  11. Bail o' Lies says:

    The Florents don’t seem to be that important in the Reach’s history, so they may be the same as the Cerwyns in the North. A family that power comes from their “physical closeness” to their rulers -Brightwater is apparently pretty close to Highgarden- instead of any prominent role, history, status or members. The Cerwyns seem to be very close to the Starks since Bran was friends with the heir and Arya felt Lord Cerywn was one of the few northern lords that would able recognize her. Something similar may have once been between the Gardeners and the Florents.

    So, because of their keep being close to Highgarden, the Gardeners tried keeping them loyal by constantly trying to marry their family members into the Florents. Those close blood ties is what gives them the status in the Reach to marry their daughters into the Tarlys, the Hightowers, and even the Baratheons. They are the second family due to their physical closeness to the Highgarden, and old blood ties to the old royal family over what give the other second houses their power which is normally either former kings (Boltons, Yornwoods, and Royces) or wealth (Harlaws, Reynes, and Freys).

    I also think the Florent’s claim on the Reach is because they were probably married to King Mern oldest daughter, and thought once all the male members died it should naturally pass to them. Which may have made them hold their grudge the longest because they thought it was their right. Since they also thought it was their shot at the big leagues.

    But why their claim is such a big deal in the books is simple, they married into the Baratheons. They thought that this was the perfect time to really press their claim since they figured that by marrying Stannis they would rise in status enough that they could convince the king to give them Highgarden.

  12. […] that the Tyrells would have been absent from the political maneuverings of these years, given their intense desire for royal favor during the reigns of King Robert and King […]

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